U.S. farmers launch "real organic" pilot project

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U.S. farmers launch

A group of U.S. farmers has launched a pilot certification program for organic operations, saying the USDA's National Organic Program "no longer adequately reflects how they farm." 

An initiative called The Real Organic Project is aiming to implement new organic standards and provide consumer transparency by "distinguishing organic farms that grow their crops in the ground, foster soil fertility and adequately pasture livestock according to foundational organic standards and principles."

The project's executive director is Dave Chapman, a longtime organic tomato grower with a farm in Vermont, who last year said he had been “dismayed” by the U.S. National Organic Standards Board's (NOSB) controversial decision to not ban hydroponic and aquaponic crops from organic certification.

"In the last year, the USDA not only embraced hydroponic production under the organic seal, but they also rejected the Organic Livestock and Poultry Production (OLPP) Rule created to strengthen animal welfare," a release from The Real Organic Project said.

A Real Organic Project 'add-on' label to USDA organic certification is expected to be rolled out on fruit and vegetable packaging by next spring. 

The inspection process includes a video interview of the farmers on their land explaining their organic production practices.

“The Real Organic Project is an inspiring team,” said associate director and Colorado farmer, Dr. Linley Dixon, who is leading the pilot project effort. “The people who wrote the standards and advise the project are national leaders in the organic and greater environmental movements.”

Dixon recently began her work as associate director of the Real Organic Project, and has a long history working for reform of the National Organic Program. She holds a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology from the University of Florida and also held a two-year post-doctorate with the USDA’s Systematic Botany and Mycology Laboratory.

“Clearly the industrial egg operations became so powerful that they had significant political influence,” said Dixon.

“We tried to keep the same thing from happening in other sectors of organic, especially tomato and berry production, but we lost that battle at the USDA last fall. Now we are taking matters into our own hands because we know it is what the consumer wants and expects when they choose organic.”

Organic tomatoes and berries have seen a drop in wholesale prices due to the influx of industrial hydroponics, which can be produced more cheaply without growing in soil, according to the release. Real Organic Project farmers maintain that growing food without soil runs counter to the whole point of organic production. 

“The USDA has embraced a redefinition of organic by rejecting the organic animal welfare rule and allowing hydroponics to enter organic crop production,” said Chapman. 

NOSB member Emily Oakley is also a board member of the Real Organic Project. 

“I’m not a big fan of phrases like 'organic premium'," she said.

"I think conventional food is falsely cheap, and frankly, the organic “premium” still doesn’t reflect the fair cost of producing the food if you account for unfair wages and the environmental costs of conventional food."


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